Much Internet-ink has been spilled over the last few months on the topic of Wheaton College professor Larycia Hawkins’s controversial statement that Muslims and Christians “worship the same God.” The situation is difficult for obvious religious, cultural, and political reasons—even if we can admire Hawkins’s extension of solidarity to Muslims, especially given the recent refugee crisis in the Middle East and its often depressing reception in North America. Is there something of a modern-day inquisition against Professor Hawkins, or is the Wheaton administration merely taking steps to act in accordance with its institutional mission as an evangelical university? No one on the outside really knows.
What those of us on the outside can know, however, is that Professor Hawkins’s statement has provoked some interesting discussion in analytic philosophical circles regarding the concepts of God in Christianity and Islam. Christian analytic philosophers such as Francis Beckwith, Michael Rea, Edward Feser, and Dale Tuggy have argued on behalf of Professor Hawkins, saying that there is a definite sense in which Christians and Muslims do, in fact, worship the same God. Others such as Lydia McGrew, William Vallicella, and Richard Davis have offered arguments for the opposite position.
The debate thus far has revolved around a key distinction made by that great calculative intellect, Gottlob Frege: namely, the distinction between sense (Sinn) and reference (Bedeutung). The point is illustrated admirably enough by Beckwith (among others):
Imagine that Fred believes that the evidence is convincing that Thomas Jefferson (TJ) sired several children with his slave Sally Hemings (SH), and thus Fred believes that TJ has the property of “being a father to several of SH’s children.” On the other hand, suppose Bob does not find the evidence convincing and thus believes that TJ does not have the property of “being a father to several of SH’s children.” … Would it follow from this that Fred and Bob do not believe that the third President of the United States was the same man? Of course not.
The point here is that two or more people can hold inconsistent descriptions of a single object without failing to refer to the same object. In this case, the object is Thomas Jefferson and the description in question is whether or not he is “a father to several of Sally Hemings’s children.” Nobody, Beckwith correctly observes, should dispute that we can disagree about the same object. Even if our descriptions (Sinne) are different, the referent (Bedeutung) is the same.
The question is, then: is this situation like the one Christians and Muslims find themselves in when they talk about God? That is to say, do Christians and Muslims refer to the same God, even while disagreeing about his properties? Beckwith thinks so:
[T]he fact that Christians may call God “Yahweh” and Muslims call God “Allah” makes no difference if both “Gods” have identical properties. In fact, what is known as classical theism was embraced by the greatest thinkers of the Abrahamic religions: St. Thomas Aquinas (Christian), Moses Maimonides (Jewish), and Avicenna (Muslim). Because, according to the classical theist, there can only in principle be one God, Christians, Jews, and Muslims who embrace classical theism must be worshiping the same God. It simply cannot be otherwise.
Rea puts the same point even more boldly:
Christians and Muslims have very different beliefs about God; but they agree on this much: there is exactly one God. This common point of agreement is logically equivalent to thesis that all Gods are the same God. In other words, everyone who worships a God worships the same God, no matter how different their views about God might be.
The interesting point here is something like the following: even if Christians and Muslims disagree about the nature of God—fundamentally, even—if they agree that there is only one God, then all “classical theists” can be said to refer to the same object. For Beckwith and Rea, this point about there being “one God” is the crucial one. God’s (or Allah’s) oneness is what “fixes the reference” of the word “God” (or “Allah”).
I am inclined to disagree—or at least problematize what I take to be a too-quick solution to an extremely difficult (perhaps insoluble) problem. First, even if it were the case that Christians and Muslims do agree about the oneness of God, it is not clear that this property should guarantee sameness in reference. Such a position seems to entail a “get out of idolatry free card,” as it were; for, on this line of reasoning, as long as I admit that there is only one God, I could presumably say literally whatever else I want about him (or “it,” for that matter) without failing to refer to him (it?). Vallicella has written on this point with characteristic clarity and insight.
Yet this issue is secondary for me, because what I am really interested in a deeper, more interesting point (to me, anyway): namely, the nature of God’s oneness in classical theism. First, for Avicenna and Aquinas—two of the philosophers mentioned by Beckwith—it is absolutely crucial to recognize that God’s oneness is not a numerical oneness. In other words, it is decidedly not the case that the concept “God” is “instantiated” exactly one time. To follow Bertrand Russell in putting the matter in a needlessly complicated way, for both Avicenna and Aquinas, the following logical formulation is simply false:
(∃x)[Gx & (y)(Gy ⊃ y = x)], i.e., “There is some x that is an instance of ‘Godness’ and everything that is an instance of ‘Godness’ is identical to that x.”
But why not? Why can we not say that the concept “Godness” has one “instance,” as it were? To put the matter more quickly than is amenable to full comprehension, for both Avicenna and Aquinas, God is wholly and invariably simple. What this means, among other things, is that God is not defined as a “species” of a “class” of objects subsequently determined by some unique differentiating property. In fact, God cannot be determined at all—numerically or otherwise—since his perfections escape the essentially compositional (read: propositional) nature of finite intellects. Indeed, precisely because we literally cannot conceive of a subject that is truly identical with its attributes, we cannot conceive of God except in a distant and confused manner. To say “There is exactly one God” in the same way that we say “There is exactly one Thomas Jefferson” is simply to ride roughshod over one of the deepest insights of classical theism: that God’s oneness is a pure undividedness that is infinitely beyond all of our strained attempts to comprehend.
For both Avicenna and Aquinas, true oneness is an expression of simplicity and actuality. It is a deeply philosophical issue—one that reveals some of the most fundamental commitments of each great thinker’s systematic work. In point of fact, although there are obviously many similarities between the two philosophers’ conception of oneness (they are both careful readers of Aristotle, after all), there are also some subtle but extremely important differences on the issue. Avicenna’s conception of oneness, to cite an example more or less at random, is such that cannot even be sensibly opposed to the notion of plurality—not absolute oneness, at least (Metaphysics of the Healing III.6.). One consequence of this view, perhaps unsurprisingly, is that God’s own oneness is so pure that it cannot even be said to create the plurality of creatures except by way of intermediary (Metaphysics IX.4.) Contrast this conception of oneness with Aquinas’s remarkable inclusion of multitudo or “multiplicity” amongst the “divine names”—that is, those perfections (like truth, goodness and beauty) that are exemplified in God preeminently and in creatures to a limited and finite degree. Indeed, says Aquinas, “The procession and multiplication of creatures is caused from the procession of the divine persons” (I Sent. 26.2.2, ad 2). Aquinas’s doctrine of creation is difficult to understand without his admission of multiplicity in the Godhead. Such a position is simply nonsense in an Avicennian world—not merely because of “pure faith” commitments, but also because of philosophical commitments about the nature of oneness.
There is obviously a lot more that could be said about the concept of oneness and especially divine oneness in Avicenna and Aquinas, but I guess what I am driving at is this: we should be careful not to group all Abrahamic thinkers under the convenient label “classical theism” if the results involve eliding such beautiful subtleties in great thinkers. I do not think that Hawkins’s statement is “obviously wrong” in every imaginable respect, and indeed we should welcome her call for solidarity and increased understanding between Christians and Muslims, especially in academic circles. The oneness of God is a mystery to which Christians and Muslim philosophers and theologians have witnessed in profound and creative ways throughout history. My humble request is that we not forget that it is, in fact, a mystery.